North Korean Blast, WMD Echoes, and Missed News Opportunities

Over the last few days I’ve been following the news coverage of the mysterious mushroom cloud that appeared Sept. 9 over North Korea. Was it a nuclear test? A forest fire? An industrial or military accident? A deliberate detonation to clear the way for a hydroelectric project?

When speculation and quick explanations are rampant, that’s exactly when journalists should push to gather hard evidence. In this case, evidence of a nuclear blast would come from scientists who monitor the globe for such events. Unfortunately, most of the world’s English-language news outlets seem to have overlooked this option. Instead, they published government officials’ various explanations and pretty much left it at that. What a shame – because even a cursory Google search can turn up useful, credible, relevant sources and sometimes even answers.

In general, I think it’s pretty sad when news organizations look like they don’t know how to use the single most popular search tool on the internet…

EXCESSIVE RELIANCE ON OFFICIAL STATEMENTS

Most of the coverage of the North Korean blast concerns what various “officials” had to say about it. A couple of days ago Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice made public statements that this blast was probably not nuclear. Such assertions are certainly newsworthy, but by themselves they are not enough. There’s much more to the story. When something as major as a possible North Korean nuclear test is at stake, frankly as a member of the global news audience I expect more from major news organizations with vast resources at their disposal.

In particular, I don’t want to simply hear WHAT government officials from the US and elsewhere believe the blast was (or wasn’t), but WHY they came to that conclusion. What evidence did they consider? What were the sources of that evidence?

Once that evidence has been supplied, it’s the duty of the press to independently verify and examine that evidence critically. If reporters and editors learned nothing else from the whole weapons of mass destruction flap, they should have learned that when they fall down on verification and skepticism, they damage their own credibility. Ultimately, what else does a news organization have to offer but its credibility?

WHERE COVERAGE FELL SHORT

In this case, most of the coverage of the North Korean blast offered by major English-language news organizations from around the world seemed uninterested in reporting more than what various officials had to say. Case in point: This Washington Post News Service piece, Mushroom cloud not nuclear blast, U.S. says by Anthony Faiola and Joohee Cho:

“In Washington, U.S. officials scrambled Saturday night to gather more information about the reports of an explosion and to study satellite photos of the site, but as dawn broke Sunday, Bush administration officials were eager to play down the significance of the explosion, in contrast to the administration’s handling of intelligence reports about Iraq in the months leading up to the war. Making the rounds of the Sunday news shows, Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said there was no indication that the blast was related to a nuclear test.”

Hmmmm… obviously the similarities to the Iraq WMD flap at least crossed those reporters’ minds. Pity they didn’t pursue that line of thought just a bit further. The article goes on to cover the inevitable political posturing in response to the event, but nothing about the actual evidence concerning the blast.

Didn’t anyone from the press ask to see these satellite photos?

Predictably, North Korea claims the blast was not a nuclear test or an accident, but rather a planned event – part of a hydroelectric project. (In other words, “We meant to do that.”) CNN and other news organizations have covered this angle – but again, without apparent inquiry into the available scientific evidence about the blast, it’s just more “he said, she said.”

STORY CLOUD OBSCURES MUSHROOM CLOUD

It’s important to not lose sight of the real story. The top question that any reporter covering this story had to answer was: Was this blast nuclear? Until that is addressed, everthing else is secondary &#150 or at least should clearly be labeled as an uncorroborated assertion.

In fact, there should indeed be evidence available to answer whether any large blast on planet Earth is nuclear or not. Nuclear blasts, whether open-air or underground, emit several telltale signatures which can be observed at great distance. It’s the duty of news organizations to pursue and gather that evidence – or to report on its lack of availability. (That is, to at least say “We tried.”)

Where can reporters get this evidence? Fortunately, scientists are watching from monitoring stations around the world for the telltale signs of nuclear blasts. This International Monitoring System (IMS) is mandated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The IMS is managed by the international CTBT Organization (CTBTO). If anyone would know whether the North Korean blast was nuclear, it would be the IMS people at the CTBTO. If I were covering this story, I’d make a beeline for them. I’d definitely call them before Colin Powell.

Interestingly, it took me about two minutes to find all this stuff through Google. The CTBTO and the IMS is not exactly a secret. The CTBTO site even offers contact information. The Associated Press could look that up and make that call as easily as I could. As easily as anyone with access to the internet and a telephone could. Pardon the pun, but none of this is nuclear engineering. It’s basic online research skills.

KUDOS TO “NEW SCIENTIST”

To my knowledge, only one news organization cited CTBTO as a source in its coverage of last week’s North Korean blast: the New Scientist. They wrote:

“‘On the balance of probabilities, it looks like this was not a nuclear test,’ says Trevor Findlay, the executive director of VERTIC, a verification research group in London, UK. ‘That’s not the sort of event you can keep secret.’

“The network of 321 monitoring stations around the globe, backed up by 16 radiation laboratories, is run by the UN Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) in Vienna, Austria. Using seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic and radiation detection technologies, they monitor constantly for nuclear blasts.

“…The results of the CTBTO analysis is not made public, but it is passed to 50 states within hours, including the UK and the US. The results of radiation monitoring can take longer, but usually no more than days, according to a CTBTO spokeswoman. ‘No-one is going to do an explosion without us noticing,’ she told New Scientist. ‘Our scientists are certain that the sound of a nuclear explosion is so clear you can’t mistake it.'”

OK, now THAT’S credible. And it’s not really technical, either. It simply clarifies what kind of evidence would indicate a nuclear blast, what system is in place to monitor for that evidence, and quotes directly from the monitoring source that no such evidence was observed. As a person reading the news, I have a lot more faith in the competence and independence of a news organization that is willing to offer such information, rather than merely parrot the unsupported assertions of “officials.”

News organizations aren’t the only ones who should be concerned about their perceived credibility. I’m surprised that neither Powell, Rice, nor other US government officials made a point of specifying the source and nature of the evidence on which they based their decision. They didn’t come through the WMD flap smelling like a rose either. This was a chance for these high officials to at least partially redeem their credibility. They missed it.

WHAT THIS SAYS ABOUT THE NEWS

The impression I get from this recent coverage is that, at least regarding the facts about major weapons, reporters and editors from mainstream news organizations remain remarkably credulous about statements from government sources. Once again, they proved remarkably lax in insisting and following up on evidence – in a situation for which there would be ample, unmistakeable evidence available either way. This case was much simpler than the WMD evidence. It should have been a journalistic no-brainer.

Many of these same news organizations rightfully took a lot of criticism for blithely reporting official claims of weapons of mass distruction in Iraq with equal credulity. That wasn’t very long ago. Have they forgotten already that credibility really does matter? Well, if so, then I’m sure that legions of internet users armed with Google, some basic curiousity, and maybe a weblog or two will certainly not let that lapse go unnoticed.

4 thoughts on North Korean Blast, WMD Echoes, and Missed News Opportunities

Comments are closed.

  1. Your call for in-depth analysis and subsequent dilligebt verification of statements from Govt officials is most plausible, but may not be practical in today’s world.

    The news media is in a constant, frantic race to see who will publish first. Readers/consumers also don’t seem to care for or want a detailed analysis, and hence the news media may not be too motivated to embrace your call.

    Cheers
    Raj

  2. Yes, I know journalists are in a rush to meet tight deadlines. That’s very true. Still, my point is that the approach I suggested (first determining the most appropriate firsthand source to verify whether a nuclear detonation occurred) literally took me two minutes to do on Google.

    In this case, I don’t think the problem was lack of time. I think the problem was a lack of desire to look beyond government officials. Or maybe just laziness. Or groupthink. Or all of the above. In any event, it’s appalling – especially with the heavy criticism of news outlets over uncritical coverage of shoddy WMD evidence so vivid in the recent past.

    – Amy Gahran

  3. I completely agree, Amy. In addition to your possible reasons, I’d like to add the personal agendas of the companies in charge of most US media outlets. The criticism over WMD coverage does not seem to have made a difference, sadly. Our news is probably more sanitized than the countries we try to ‘democratize.’ Thanks for bringing up this topic.

  4. Re: Raj’s comments, I don’t know how much more motivation the news media needs than the fact that more and more people are tuning them out over just such issues of losing credibility by not doing the homework we expect journalists to make.

    I completely agree with Amy’s thesis here that the over-reliance on the “he-said, he-said” format does a complete dis-service to the public, and is just the laziest form of reporting, in particular not asking for evidence for public officials’ assertions and then doing a little due diligence on them. If they don’t offer any proof, at least let us know that you asked and they refused.